OPOTIKI RUGBY Club secretary Tony Howe reckons rugby is very strong in his town.
He feels things are in capable hands; that the club is ticking along nicely and will continue to hum for the foreseeable future.
It’s hard to argue with Howe when he makes those statements.
There is no denying that Opotiki is in good health. It has been since the town’s three clubs – Opotiki Maori Players, City and Opotiki United – melded together 12 years ago to form the one identity.
Opotiki is the only eastern Bay of Plenty club in the top-flight Baywide competition, where it more than holds its own against the city slickers from Rotorua and Tauranga. It narrowly missed out on a semifinals berth last year after finishing fifth.
The situation is just as good off the park. Opotiki does not want for support at its picturesque Princess Street Reserve base, one of two facilities this Maori- and family-orientated club calls home.
It is a superb set-up. There is a gym – which was paid for and kitted out by the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union – and a cosy clubhouse that is dripping wall to wall in international rugby jerseys, many of which were gifted to the club by its only All Black, Frank Shelford.
One worn by a Welsh player against the New Zealand Maori in 1982 takes pride of place above the bar and is the only one of its kind in New Zealand. Howe says both the New Zealand Rugby Union and Rugby Museum have been working overtime to get their hands on it.
Most supporters soak up the rugby action from the modest grandstand, and there is a special ‘corporate area’ just outside the clubhouse. That spot is reserved for life members, local identities and sponsors. They prop themselves on leaners and have their cold beverages brought out to them.
After the referee has signalled no-side, it is back to the clubhouse for some tucker. As part of the club’s protocol, guests and kids are always served first. There is also a Maori welcome.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Neither is the rugby on a Saturday. A crowd of between 300-400 people can be expected. That number swells to 500 if a big game, say against Tauranga Sports, is being played.
“If we don’t have the biggest crowds in the Bay of Plenty, we’d have the second biggest crowds,” boasts Howe.
Opotiki also gives its supporters plenty to cheer about as well when it takes on BOP’s best teams.
“We love to give it to the big fellas, we really do, and we’re always competitive. The other clubs from the Bay hate coming here. It’s a bit like Carisbrook – it’s a house of pain.”
Barring one season when it lost its Baywide status, Opotiki has been dishing out that pain since the OMP, City and United clubs began collaborating permanently with one another in 2000.
That three-way merger occurred out of necessity: “It was an agreement amongst the other clubs that financially and administration-wise we needed to be smarter and have bigger numbers,” explains Howe.
After a few teething problems early in the piece, it has certainly delivered on the latter, with Opotiki fielding senior A, B, colts and women’s teams this year.
The latter is pretty strong. Dominant even. So dominant that it ran out of opponents in the Bay of Plenty region a couple of years ago and had to play in the Poverty Bay competition!
Those teams rack up plenty of travel. The senior A and colts teams journey to Rotorua or Tauranga every second weekend, while the B side embarks on lengthy trips for its local competition games.
“Our travel bill is huge and is our biggest cost,” says Howe. “We do the greatest amount of travel of any club in the Bay of Plenty because of where we are. But being in the rural areas you get used to doing that. It’s what you have to do.”
It looks like Opotiki will be doing that for the foreseeable future. A forward-thinking committee is taking care of things off the field, while there are 280 registered junior players and a strong rugby nursery in Opotiki College.
The future diagnosis is looking bright.
“We’ve got very good depth and rugby is very strong in our town,” says Howe.
Indeed it is. And something suggests it will continue to be so for many years to come.
FRANK SHELFORD is a born and bred Opotiki man.
So one can only image the celebrations that took place in the Opotiki United clubhouse when he was named in the All Blacks.
Shelford made his debut while flour bombs fell from the sky during the emotionally-charged third test against the Springboks at Eden Park in 1981.
He earned his cap on the back of a strong performance for the New Zealand Maori against the tourists, taking the place of the injured Ken Stewart for the test series decider.
“Without a doubt that is easily our greatest moment, because he is a home-bred boy who became an All Black,” says club secretary Tony Howe.
“There were about 400 people in the clubrooms on a Sunday drinking, and we even had a band in here. It was a big night.”
His selection was the ultimate reward for a man who would do almost anything to play for his club – including stretching the truth.
“Frank would always bullshit to his provincial or New Zealand Maori coaches and say Aunty So-and-so had died, but he would be down here playing club rugby. He was that loyal.”
LES JOBLIN is known as ‘Mr Opotiki Rugby.’
He epitomises everything one would want in a rural rugby stalwart. He wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty during his long association with rugby which kicked off in 1930. No job was too big for this ex-farmer.
Joblin did it all. He chaired the Opotiki sub-union, refereed for 30 years, played and coached. That dedication earned him life member status at the sub-union and its referees’ association.
“He is ‘Mr Opotiki Rugby,’” says club secretary Tony Howe. “You name it, he’s done it. He was one of those guys who was always there for Opotiki rugby… a rugby fanatic.”
Joblin these days in domiciled in a retirement home, but is still as mentally sharp as a ginsu knife. An encyclopaedia of footy knowledge, he has been banned from entering rugby quizzes because he always knows the answers!
His sense of humour has also remained intact: “I used to coach this junior team that had never won a game until I took over. After that they were never beaten. Mind you, I used to referee them as well,” he quips.
“When I was young, rugby was the thing you got interested in. Rugby has been my life.”
ALL BLACKS (1)
Frank Shelford* 1981,’84
*Shelford played for Opotiki United
This weekend throws up another set of games which could go either way.
Which player was unlucky not to make the Wallabies’ preliminary squad for the British and Irish Lions series?